I'm rocking on the back legs of a folding chair, one of thirty or so mismatched chairs, recliners, bean bags, bar stools, foot stools, weight benches, hassocks, and ottomans facing a scarecrow mic stand. A woman in a flannel muumuu is adjusting the sound. I'm guessing she's the MC.
My skin is hot and prickly. Off comes my sweater. A shiver, back on it goes. This is why people my age dress in layers or muumuus: We’re slowly losing control of our bodies. Functions that we never used to think about now require constant attention.
Pots clang and a disposal grinds in an adjacent kitchen. I'm sitting in the living room of a co-housing complex in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In October 2015, most things in Cambridge are "co" or "bi" or "poly." On Wednesdays, the complex hosts a polyamory meet-and-greet. I once tried to sign up and was told that single women were welcome. Single guys, not so much.
But I don't have time to dwell on the unfairness of life for middle-aged guys; I'm the featured performer at tonight's story-telling hour. The event has two rules: Your story must be memorized and it must be somewhat true, which leaves wiggle room for artistic liberty and aging memories.
Tonight, I’ll do a piece that I've been memorizing for the past month. I've rehearsed it fast, slow, lying down, standing on one foot, wearing cranked headphones, after a few beers, after a few Ambien. Every time I rehearse, I forget a different line.
MC Muumuu warms up the crowd with a story about a Brad Pitt look-alike ten years her junior who couldn’t keep his hands off her. No one is listening. They probably think she’s full of shit. Also, the audience at these events is mainly other story-tellers waiting their turn, making last-minute notes, rehearsing silently, and not-so silently.
After a half dozen performers, MC gives my intro: "Let's give a warm welcome to the feature at tonight’s Cambridge Story Telling Hour, Randall Burns. Randall is a writer, performer, and web consultant. His fiction and humor have appeared in Calliope, Vermont Review, The Bagslam Review, Pancreas, Bean Flicker Magazine, Monkey Slapper Quarterly, Spooge Review, Itch, Smeg Magazine, and The Boston Herald. His short story "Smells Like Fish" was a finalist for the 2013 Brown Eye Flash Fiction Contest. In 2012, he self-published a novel, Bacon Strips on the Ceiling. Tonight he is going to perform a new scene from The Chronic Single's Handbook, a one-man show he has performed at fringe theater festivals in Paris, Maine and Berlin, New Hampshire. Please give it up for Randall!"
No matter how many times I perform, my body reacts the same when I'm called: I recoil. Sphincters and throat cinch up. Eyes and mouth become dry. I start to feel hot and fluey. Eventually, I find myself at the mic.
Tonight, a few people clap. Others get up and leave. More clanging and grinding from the kitchen. A woman coughs. I cough to clear my throat, and then wrestle the mic from the stand and scan the audience, which is now down to ten people. They look bored. A white-bearded guy in the front row scans my khaki pants, my zipper. MC considers my dress shoes. I’m like the republican at a Bernie Sanders rally. Everyone else is wearing flannel, fleece, or camou, dressed for panhandling or varmint hunting.
My thoughts scatter like pheasants. A stray eye-brow hair appears in my field of vision. I must be squinting or grimacing.
An Asian woman in a black bowler slips into the back row. She's wearing a fitted suit and make up. A fellow republican.
I slip back to the present. The first few words of my piece surface and load. My mouth opens. I listen.
"Bangkok. Bang Cock."
Someone coughs or laughs.
I continue: "The name alone sounds skeevy and from the moment I get off the plane, I'm on high alert. I've read about the transsexual lady boys, tuk-tuk scammers, and locals who play volleyball with their feet."
Word, phrases, and hand gestures load smoothly, autopilot. I look around the room: bored MC, sleeping guy, guy with eyes wide looking in mine – come back to him later, he's engaged. The Asian woman is wearing lipstick, a low neck shirt, collar bones. She smiles. Smile lines, over forty, in my wheel house. Definitely coming back to her.
I hear myself stutter. A mispronunciation. A skip. Loading stops. I hear myself breathing. My mind twists in the silence. I look at the ceiling, the ground, the bowler, everywhere for the next line and can't find it. I repeat the stuttered phrase to myself, hoping something will catch and restart the feed. I try to recall advice of my acting coach: Performing is about showing up, getting on stage, and trusting that your lines will be there. You show up, the lines will show up. What a load of crap.
I repeat the phrase again, this time out loud. A few more words surface, a sentence, not sure where it goes, but I go with it. The sentence leads to another and another. I've omitted a whole section of my piece, but I know the punch line is up ahead. I say it, pause, and wait for it to land. Titters. Then louder. The Asian woman starts laughing. The guy who seemed asleep laughs, claps, and goes back to sleep.
I find myself back in my seat, pleased, spent, craving a beer, a cigarette, a plate of fried clams, and a nice long shit.
After MC's closing remarks, the older guy who stared at my fly and then slept through the rest of my piece comes over. The Asian woman still wearing her bowler comes over. Are they together? Poly? Offended by my joke about Bangkok lady boys?
"I liked your piece," the guy says. "Are you an actor?"
Before I can say, "Hardly," he says, "I've been to Bangkok."
The guy isn’t offended. He’s not even interested in what I have to say. He just wants to relive his trip to Bangkok. He talks about go-go girls, bar girls, and streetwalkers. I look at the Asian woman. She smiles again, an eye-roll. He continues talking about his trips to Saigon, Phnom Penh, Cuba, and the Philippines, all the sex-tourism hot spots. Finally, he says, "A group of us are going out for drinks. You should come."
I point to the Asian woman: "I'll go if she goes."
We’re seated in a bar called Paddy O’Wongs, an East-West fusion of reclaimed pine and polished steel, stained glass and Kanji, golf umbrellas and drink umbrellas, part Celtic bar, part pu-pu platter.
I’ve snagged a seat next to the Asian woman still wearing her bowler. The old guy with Bangkok experience has snagged a seat next to me. These days, we’re all a bunch of stalkers. Our entourage also includes MC Muumuu and a few other folks from the co-housing event.
A waiter circles the table and pulls up next to me: "I'm Kim, at your service.” he says to the Asian women. She smiles.
"I'm Jackie,” she says to the waiter and then points to me. “And this is Randall. We just came from the co-housing story-telling hour."
"You must be hungry,” Kim says. “Let me tell you about tonight’s special: Vegetarian haggis stuffed with kimchee and seaweed $15.95.”
"I'm going to stick with gin,” Jackie says. “Beefeater on the rocks with a twist."
“Budweiser,” I say.
"All-American, a patriot,” she says. “An expatriate. What was a nice guy like you doing in Bangkok?"
"In 2007, I took a trip around the world. Had a rotten time. Except for Bangkok. And Vietnam. And Cambodia."
"Did you have many happy endings? Hot lady boy action? You know, a lot of women watch gay porn. The more cocks the better."
I recoil and cinch up but then regain my footing. "Are you like a lot of women?"
"I’m old enough to remember The Jackson Five and you can still bounce a dime off my stomach. So, I'm probably not like a lot of women."
She tests my stomach firmness with a poke. No boundaries and no filter. My kind of girl.
Her gin arrives. She runs the lemon twist around the glass rim. "These garnishes are a magnet for e.coli and other ass germs," she says. "The gin kills some. But just in case." She takes out pocket-sized bottle of Purell.
"A woman after my own heart," I say.
She shoots a clear gob into her palms, then one into mine. She rubs her hands together as if she’s preparing for surgery or a happy ending.
She sips her gin, sipping lines, a hint of eye socket, skeletal cheeks, the skull look. After forty, you have two options: You can have a slim body with a gaunt face or you can have a plump face with a plump body. I'll take slim and gaunt any time. My friend Abe says I'm attracted to scrawny women in need of a cheeseburger or an IV drip. I can’t remember: I haven't had a date in three months. I haven’t had a relationship in ten years. Not since Ricki and Dr. Moody and the boob job and the skating accident and the kick to the balls and the other stuff Abe says I shouldn’t dwell on because it's making me cynical, bitter, beaten-down, and contributes to why I'm fifty-six and alone. But Abe isn’t the best source of advice. Ten years ago, he got married, settled for Amy, who is anything but gaunt.
Jackie is facing away, talking to some younger guy on her left. I imagine her knobby spine and baby back ribs. She can't weigh more than 100 pounds. A good weight for a woman. I lean in, sniff, and detect citrus and cigarette smoke. All good. I wait for a chance to join her conversation, and then think better of it. I don't want to appear too interested, too needy, like a beaten-down guy with a glommy heart. I turn to the older guy on my other side and ask him about Bangkok, an easy conversation to start, just a spark and he’s off: Patpong, Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza. If there was a red-light district in Bangkok, he hit it hard. At least I’m not sitting here quiet, disconnected, and fading away like someone with no game.
Jackie finishes her conversation and leans into ours. I look at her, wait for Mr. Bangkok to take a breath, and then I address her.
"How did you end up at the story-telling event?"
"It's the anniversary of my step-father's death, Yartzheit. He used to read his poetry in The Village. In his honor, I wanted to attend some kind of literary event.”
“You're Jewish?” I ask.
“My step-father was Jewish and my mother was Chinese. Jewish men seem to have a thing for Asian women.”
I hear myself blurt out: "I'm Jewish.”
She sips her drink, and then shakes the ice around in her glass. "Your one-man show is called ‘The Chronic Single's Handbook?’ That must bring the chicks a running."
"It's just a show,” I say, “and I'm done apologizing for it. This spring I’m touring in Canada, performing at two theater festivals, like Sundance Film Festivals for performers, a chance to get discovered or to come home with my tail between my legs."
The waiter drops off the check. People throw down money and stand to leave. Jackie considers her empty glass.
“Walk me to my car?” she asks. “I’m driving a big, black Hummer.”
Back in my apartment, I fire up PornHose.com. Today’s most popular videos: “Asian Creampie,” “Mature Asian with Puffy Nipples,” “Asian Housewife Finger and Squirt.”
I’m too wound up to watch. I call my married friend Abe who lives around the corner. It’s before ten, so he’s probably still awake.
He answers after four rings: “Burns, what’s up? I’m busy here.”
Through his speaker phone, I hear the chime for PornHose in the background.
“Hey, Abe. Shut that off. You got a wife to service. And this is important. I met a cute chick at the story-telling event."
Before Abe can respond, I hear on his end pounding on a door and a woman's voice, but it's no porn queen, it's Amy, his wife.
"Abe, why is the door closed?" Amy asks.
Abe responds to Amy: "I'm talking to Burns. He just met someone. Guy talk."
Amy and Abe go back and forth, something about their four-year-old. I click on a video called "French Maid Cleans the Pipes" and turn the volume up so Abe can hear it, so Amy can hear it. Amy's voice gets louder. Abe's voice gets louder. Then silence.
"I'm back," Abe says. "Thanks for ratting me out. Amy could hear the moaning French Maid out in the hallway, now she's pissed. Anyway, tell me about the new girl."
"She’s age-appropriate. Jewish. From Long Island and drives a Hummer.”
“What kind of Jewish chick drives a Hummer?” Abe asks.
“An Asian one with a Jewish step-father.”
“She must have the little Karen Carpenter body you like.”
“And no kids or pets. She wears make up, a skirt, likes looking like a woman, likes foreign movies. She drinks gin – over fifty and still parties, an outlier, a renaissance woman. These don’t come on the market very often. We exchanged cards.”
“Burns, you haven’t had a date in three years, congrats.”
“Abe, it’s only been three months.”
“Has she seen your car?”
“Good. Has she seen your bicycle? Do you still cover the bike seat with a trashbag?”
“I walked her to her car and pointed out my bike. She probably thinks I’m a struggling artist and wants to hang out with the band. Also, her father wrote poetry.”
I hear the Pornhose chime again on his end. Abe continues: “She’s cute and single? Got to be something wrong with her.”
“Well, yeah,” I say. “She sells real estate. Has a townhouse in Brookline. She’s trading in the Hummer for a new Camaro. She wears jewelry and watches lots of TV: The Entertainment channel and "Sex in the City" reruns. She’s got JAP written all over her. Pun intended.”
“Amy has a PhD and she watches that crap. Women like to watch TV. What else you got?”
“She’s been married three times. Says she likes being married and would do it again.”
“You’ve never been married. You can’t stand to be around anyone longer than four hours.”
“I know," I say. "This is never going to work. But she’s kind of cool. She likes to ski, has a gun permit, and voted for Reagan.”
“You’ll be perfect together, two low-information voters, two ignoramuses. She’ll listen to your rants about how middle-aged white guys are victims. She’s armed and buying a muscle car. Sounds like the chick has some big, hairy balls. You like that. What did she think about your Bangkok story?”
“She laughed. But who drinks gin these days?”
“Rich, old alcoholics.”
I hear Amy again in the background. She and Abe talk. I check email, half-hoping to see a note from Jackie. Instead, there's an ad for Asian brides. Pornhose must be noting my taste in videos or listening in to my phone call.
"I'm back," Abe says.
I recall another Jackie red flag: “She talked about sex constantly. Woman who do that are usually desperate or prudes. I have to stop getting so excited about these things. They never work. Did I mention she’s in her mid-fifties?”
“Amy says her girlfriends over fifty worry that guys don't find them sexy anymore, that guys think they’re all dried up so the chicks talk a lot of sex trash.”
“What if we have sex and I’m not into it. I’ve never seen a woman my age naked. What if she's a saggy disaster under those nice clothes? How do you do it, Abe?”
“Burns, at our age sex is a chore. You just do it. You'll both be grateful."
We have a conversation that we have at least once a week, "Sex: The Middle Age Man's Paradox."
When you're young, you a high sex drive, you can fuck anyone, no matter what they look like. But once you’re over fifty, it takes more to get it up, the women have to be better looking, which at middle-age most are not, most are busted up, lumpy, sack-like, saggy. And now we're busted up and saggy. So the few good looking women our age, the outliers, can be picky as hell. And we're invisible to younger women. To get a younger woman you have two options, porn or prostitution. The conversation usually ends with Abe saying that the guy always pays anyway – even when he's married, so I should get off my ass, open my wallet and pay for a hooker like our other friend, Lenny.
"You in front of your computer?" Abe asks.
An icon flashes on Pornhose: One of my Facebook friends, a guy from Boston with a wife and kid, is on the site.
"Abe, Pornhose just added a new feature where it recommends videos my friends are watching."
"What will they think of next? Check out the video "MILF Rub and Tub." Some of those women look fine.”
We skim a few videos together. According to Pornhose, Abe has given this clip two thumbs up.
“OK, Abe. But lately I’ve had the worst luck with women. I always fuck something up.”
The phone slips out of my hand onto the floor. I pick it up.
“Burns, calm down. Just do what I tell you, nothing more, nothing less. Email in her two days, a short note: ‘Enjoyed talking to you the other night, let's go for gin and tonics.’ Pick some place fun and cheap.”
“She drinks hard liquor nothing is cheap.”
“Burns, you’ve got some money. Live a little. If she's driving, she won't have more than two. You said she's little right? It's like performing; your job is just to show up. If she likes you it won’t matter what you say or do. Amy was just saying the other day that after three years without a date, you’re overdue.”